Sometimes you see letters which look broken, pasul:

But don’t freak out. Tilt it up, see what you can see.

Candlewax tends to gleam. Candlewax you can generally crack off with a scalpel, or X-acto knife, or a plastic spoon if you’ve really got nothing else handy.

Then you can take a blurry picture. A well-focused picture would be better; you’ll just have to pretend that this picture is after the whole Barukh Mordekhai/Arur Haman bit.

Mirrored from

I’ve been neglecting you a bit, I’m afraid. This is because I’ve been posting regular posts for my current Torah client at their special blog, and I haven’t had energy to do two lots of posts or to set up proper cross-posting. Check out last week’s post A single mistake invalidates the entire sefer Torah (with spiffy new photographs) and then continue reading below:

A few weeks ago I wrote this in the Torah:
Ad yashovet hamayimעד ישבת המים, the nonsensical phrase until the feminine singular water sat [thanks Heloise for pointing that out]. The passage in question is וישלח את הערב ויצא יצוא ושוב עד יבשת המים מעל הארץ, He sent forth the raven, and it went out repeatedly and returned, until the waters had dried up from the earth.

יבשת vs ישבת, you see. Both versions make sense, but one of them is wrong, and so it has to be fixed.

Tools for fixing, left to right: electric eraser, scalpel, burnishing tool, rose thorn, eraser.

As discussed last week, you first remove the ink. Some like to use electric erasers for this; with the right grade of abrasive tip, the electric eraser makes short work of the ink. At present I’m in a phase of preferring a scalpel; what you lose on speed, you gain in finesse.
Eventually it’s all gone. At this point, you use the eraser to clear any bits of ink that didn’t brush off. Then you burnish the surface so that it’s good to write on. You use the rose thorn to re-score the line (it’s hard and about the right thickness to match the existing lines, plus extensive biblical/poetic symbolism of roses).
Rewrite properly. They stand out a bit while they’re still wet…
…but once they’ve dried you can’t really tell the difference.

Mirrored from

This is why we call him George. Who signs Torahs?

This is why we call him George. Who signs Torahs?

You’re not supposed to write your name on the back of a sefer Torah, just in case you were wondering.
Blue ink.

Blue ink.

What *is* this? And what is it doing scribbled on the back of a sefer torah?
Say what?

Say what?

By the way, if anyone can decipher these, I’d be delighted to hear about it. I really do wonder what they’re doing there.
I hate not being able to read people's writing!

I hate not being able to read people's writing!

At least they used pencil on the front…
Same again...

Same again...

Got rid of all these with erasers and knifework. But took pictures, for posterity. Hullo, posterity!

Mirrored from

You’re merrily checking through a sefer Torah, one in which the scribe tends to underestimate his lines, and has to stretch at the ends to compensate (lines 1, 2, 6, 7). And you see a chunk (lines 3, 4, 5) of squishied-up writing. Why?

vezot torat hamincha edited

This usually happens when you accidentally leave words out. Calligraphers have various ways of dealing with missing lines; here’s a particularly sweet example from the St John’s Bible, where the missing words are written in the margin and flown into place by a little bird:

Homoioteleuton in St John's Bible

Homoioteleuton in St John's Bible

Torah scribes don’t have such luxury. No writing words in the margin for us.

We do, technically, have the option of writing the missing words above the line, but a) that’s Not Done these days b) if there are a lot of words, that’s not going to work.

So what options remain? Either start the sheet over, or erase words from the surrounding text, and make enough space that we can squish the extra words in.

Note that the second item in line 3 is an obligatory space. The space has to be in the middle of a line. I expect he started erasing after the space because repositioning the space would have been even more tiresome than not.

Also, note that the second item in line 6 is a Divine Name. These can’t be erased. So the scribe erased the two-and-a-bit lines of 3, 4, and 5 to write in the proper text, unless he realised his error before he got to the divine name.

So what was his mistake?

From the shadows, I can sort of see where some letters used to be:

vezot torat hamincha 3

But whatever did he write first? I’m stumped by those apparent two kufs. Maybe we’ve got two rounds of erasing to contend with? Certainly that “et” is on a double erasure – maybe it’s actually on a triple erasure?

Real scribal archaeologists have UV lights and all sorts of toys for reading the underneath writing on palimpsests. If this was actually important we could use some of those toys, but it isn’t really – just fun. So – any thoughts?

Mirrored from

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Jul. 6th, 2011 03:59 pm)

I love RG.

RG has been coming to Apprentice with a Sofer on Tuesday nights.

She doesn’t count herself as valid to work on a sefer Torah (because she holds that men and women have different halakhic capabilities) so every time we do a new thing, she asks me “Can I do this? Can I do that?”

I love this. It’s so un-awkward. It makes it so easy to emphasise “Some people can’t do everything. It’s okay to be one of those people. There’s plenty you can do anyway. And no-one’s judging you.”

Cheers, RG!

Mirrored from


When re-inking letters, do not forget and plonk your stupid elbow down on them.

Mirrored from

You could be taking my class at Yeshivat Hadar!

Or one of the half-dozen other Tuesday night classes which will also be happening. Here’s what mine is going to look like:

Apprentice with a Sofer

Learn basic Torah repair and maintenance skills which will enable you to keep your community’s Torah scrolls in good working order. We will learn halakha from the sefer Keset haSofer, and practical skills by working with real Torah materials and a real Torah scroll. Skills will include proper use of tape, sandpaper, alcohol and erasers; replacing broken seams; how to identify and tackle pasul letters; and the use of the internet for seeking advice.

In order to work on the Torah scroll you must be traditionally shomer Shabbat and punctilious about the mitzvah of tefillin. Alternatives will be provided for those who are not currently at this level.

When: Tuesday nights, June 21-August 2, 2011 (Note: the beit midrash will not meet on July 19 due to 17 Tammuz)
Time: 7:15pm – 8:45pm; (Arvit will take place at 8:45pm)
Cost: Free
Where: Mechon Hadar, 190 Amsterdam Avenue (at 69th St.)

First class this week! With desserts and a talk from R’ Ethan Tucker, Toward a Sustainable Egalitarian Judaism.

Mirrored from

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( May. 17th, 2011 04:18 pm)

See how the scribe here has adjusted his lines to fit around the hole in his klaf?

Hole in klaf

Rabbi Dan describes this perfectly: “a loving reminder that we live in a very, very wealthy time when we can have perfect klafim in our synagogues, and admiring the sofer who adapted to the needs of the moment.”

Mirrored from

Tears in Torahs are scary, people. I know. You see a big tear, you want to STICK IT BACK TOGETHER REALLY HARD so it WON’T TEAR ANY MORE. Nobody could be calm about finding this in their Torah, for instance:


But for the love of all things holy, don’t whip out the duck tape and do this:


The amount of tape used is directly proportional to the amount of trauma someone’s trying to fix. But think about it for a second – it’s torn already. Tape isn’t going to fix it. You’re only trying to make yourself feel better with all that duck tape.

Go have a cup of tea instead. When you’ve calmed down, come back. The job of the tape is not to fix the sefer or to assuage your guilt at having let it get torn; tape is to stop things getting any worse until it can be fixed properly with parchment. Duck tape is for pipes and trucks. A Torah is neither. For a Torah we use artists’ tape to stop something getting worse, while we’re working on getting it fixed.

Mirrored from

Some repairs you don’t need a sofer for. You just need wood glue.


Yes, folks – if your rollers are falling apart, get yourself some wood glue and jolly well stick them back together. Just don’t get the glue on the Torah, but you figured that out already. No scribal training required.

Mirrored from

Ever wonder what makes heavy Torahs so heavy?

Size is part of it, of course. Before Good Electric Lighting and Universal Spectacles (in the eyecare sense, not in the entertainment sense), having bigger letters helped the reader. Line height these days is regularly 8mm, only two-thirds the size of the letters on older, bigger Torahs.

But another thing is coating. Torahs used commonly to be coated with a substance called log, a plaster-based white stuff that made the parchment pretty and white and heavy. See this next pic, klaf viewed from the back – clicky to see bigger – on the left, splotchily applied log; on the right, brush-marks.

That’s basically a thin layer of stone, right there on the parchment, and the thing about stone is that it’s darn heavy.

I work with so many synagogues that have these enormous heavy Torahs that no-one can lift. They never get used because there’s no-one in the congregation who can do hagbah with them – they barely even get taken out on Simchat Torah, poor things. But these Torahs used to be used, once upon a time. What happened?

I already suggested that we can have smaller Torahs these days because we have better synagogue lighting and more people have specs. I also think that we need smaller Torahs these days because we don’t have people who can lift them any more. Where are the blacksmiths, the butchers, the carpenters? the carters, the porters, the men who worked with their muscles for a living and on Shabbat they lifted the Torah? They’ve all gone, replaced by power tools.

Without getting overly nostalgic for times when women routinely died in childbirth (except in today’s USA where they still do, lucky us!) and their children died in infancy and their husbands died young in industrial accidents, I do get a little sad for these big old Torahs, standing solid and beautiful in the backs of arons all over the country, their lovely big legible script unseen and unread, as we read our tiny light Torahs with our halogen lights and our contact lenses and bear them aloft with our feeble withered arms.

beautiful big letters

Mirrored from

ink popping off torah

Places where ink has popped off and only the shadows are left. Clicky to see bigger.

The shadows don’t count, by the by, so if your letters look like this, they are pasul and need fixing.

These kinds of pesulim are funny. They really do just pop off. Pop! and they’re gone. Sometimes if it’s very bad you can look at the floor of the aron and see all these little flakes of popped-off letters.

I’d write more, speculating about how and why and so on, but I’ve been on my feet all day checking through nine sifrei Torah to see what they need by way of repairs, and I’m about wiped out.

Mirrored from

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Dec. 10th, 2010 11:10 am)

In my email:

Hi Jen! I hope it’s okay if I ask you a quick question — the school I’m working at just paid a bunch to have our Torah repaired — lots of letter were flaking off. The sofer said this was due to humidity and…mentioned something about silicate powder, but we don’t know how much to get. Do you know anything about this subject? Thank you so much and chag sameach!

Background: when parchment gets humid, it expands, slightly and unevenly. I’ve posted before about how parchment sometimes goes cockly on warm days; see old post How a soferet knows it’s spring, for instance.The dampness causes small amounts of expanding and contracting.

The ink doesn’t expand or contract at the same rate as the parchment, and that’s where we run into difficulties. You’re probably all familiar with the effects; you’ve seen it happen on a t-shirt after it’s been through the laundry a few times.

click to see bigger

click images to see bigger

Same thing happens to Torah letters, if they’re not well-guarded against humidity. Rapid changes are especially harmful.


REALLY bad humidity has even worse effects – worst of all when you have actual condensation, which causes real water damage, very hard to repair – but even when it isn’t that extreme, it can still be pretty bad, as in this next picture. There, the back of the parchment semi-melted and glued itself to the letters; when the scroll was unrolled, the letters stayed stuck to the back of the parchment, except in the places where the back of the parchment stayed stuck to the letters.

Effects of bad humidity

So what’re you supposed to do? How do you guard against humidity?

Aron design is part of it. If your aron kodesh is built into an exterior wall, and not damp-proofed, you’re setting yourself up for trouble. If you’re storing your sifrei torah in the boiler room during the week, likewise. If the aron lives right next to the heating unit, likewise. If you’re in Florida in the summer, likewise. Storing your sifrei torah away from the more obvious sources of moisture is a good idea, where possible.

If you’ve got no clue whether your aron is humid or not, there are humidity-testing devices out there. Hardcore cigar people have hygrometers in their cigar arons; you might borrow one from someone’s uncle. You can also pick one up on eBay, and they’re quite fun to have around so that you can grumble in the summer (”it’s 80% humidity today would you believe”). Also, every Jewish community has someone whose hair goes frizzy on humid days; put them in the aron and see if they come out complaining about their hair…no, I’m just joking. More info on humidity and testing here.

Museums face similar issues – even if they’re not in the boiler room or in Florida, museums store valuable documents in climate-controlled rooms, to prevent the same kind of damage we’re talking about here. Air-conditioning serves pretty well for climate control; one can also use a regular powered dehumidifier. Of course, using masses of electricity has its disadvantages.

The non-electric option is silica gel, that stuff that comes in packets in shoeboxes. It sits in the aron and absorbs atmospheric moisture; very clever, very handy. One can buy it in packages to suit particular volumes; it comes with a little indicator-thing so you can see how it’s doing, and when it’s absorbed as much moisture as it can hold, you dry it out in the oven and put it back. Here’s a nice FAQ about silica gel and the practicalities of how much to buy.

Mirrored from

The Czech Memorial Scrolls were originally collected up by the Jews of Prague, in the wake of Nazi devastation. As the Jews of Bohemia disappeared, the Prague Jews collected up their scrolls to keep them safe, hoping to give them back to their owners after the war. But their owners were all murdered – and then the Prague Jews were murdered too. After the war, the Czech government didn’t want them – so Westminster Synagogue bought 1,564 sifrei Torah and brought them to London. Their website is really excellent and a fascinating read (see also the USA associate site).

sev-flaking Now many of the scrolls have been given foster-homes in the United States, and their new communities want to make them part of the family – so they look at the possibility of having the sefer repaired, so that it can be read from once more. That’s where I come in.

The story is usually the same – it was clearly a beautiful sefer once, but the Holocaust left its mark on it. Time has dried out the parchment and ink so that now the letters are just crumbling into nonexistence with the barest touch, even just the touch of the parchment as the scroll is rolled and unrolled. The little black splots in the picture are ink crumbles. (The orange colouration is rust. See below.)

I think these Holocaust sefarim are like the father character in the book Maus. They’re so damaged by the Holocaust that they simply aren’t really capable of functioning normally any more. Just like people, it’s normal for all sifrei Torah to age to a point beyond which it’s no longer practical or kind to keep fixing them up so they can stay at work, but it’s so much sadder with the Holocaust ones.

oldrepairsOver time, most sifrei Torah go a bit flaky in places. When it’s just a few letters here and there, we apply another coat of ink to the scuffy parts – like that hey in the top line, you see where it’s just a bit white? We’d colour those bits black, and continue as normal.

You can see, in places, where this Holocaust sefer has actually had that kind of repair, years and years ago – look at the brown letters; see how they’ve got black patches on them? The brown will be what remains of the original ink, gone reddish because of oxidisation in the iron compounds – rust, in other words – and the black is a more recently-applied coat of ink, applied where once the letter was just a bit scuffy in the middle.

But now it’s not just a letter here and there, it’s basically all the letters. You can restore a sefer in this condition, but it’s difficult to do well because they’re so very flaky. Either you have to remove all the flakes and basically start over, or you have to apply a stickier ink than usual to try and glue the remaining flakes into place; both of these are rather delicate processes.

One can try using fixatives such as artists use, to hold what remains in place and retard decay, but they’re limited in their effect, they make the sefer much heavier than it already is, and you still won’t have a kosher sefer unless you put in all the time repairing the poor flaky flaky letters.

There are people who will re-ink every letter on a sefer like this, spray it with fixative, and tell you to come back for a checkup in five years, at which point you’ll probably have to do a lot of it over again. This course of action is sometimes appropriate, for instance in a community that really can’t invest in a new sefer, or a sefer which has enormous emotional significance to the community in some way. It’s still often exceedingly expensive, say upwards of $5000, if the sefer is starting out in very poor condition, like this one. And it seems to me that – especially with these poor sad Holocaust scrolls – that it’s often just kinder to accept that this sefer has aged and sustained damage beyond telling, and instead of applying severe restorative therapies to make it “normal” again, let it have a dignified retirement.

Which was the advice I gave this community, sadly enough.

Mirrored from

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Oct. 22nd, 2010 11:39 am)

Adhesive creep on sefer Torah

Adhesive creep on a sefer Torah. The seam reinforcements are glued on; over time, the glue Creeps out from where it was originally put. Being sticky, the creepy glue sticks to a) other things b) dirt. Here, the glue from the reinforcement on the right-hand side of the picture has stained the Torah’s margin, on the left-hand side of the picture.

Preventing adhesive creep is a pastime of archivists; a sofer removes the stains with sandpaper, which tends to make archivists scream incoherently.

This is one of the differences between scribes, whose job is to keep a manuscript in good working order, and archivists, whose job is to preserve manuscripts for posterity. Scribes do practical things that archivists would never dream of doing. But they are both troubled by adhesive creep.

Mirrored from